The UCSB Middle East Ensemble: Soaring Melodies Promote Respect and Shared Humanity

UCSB Middle East Ensemble with Dr. Andrea Fishman (soloist)
UCSB Middle East Ensemble with soloist Dr. Andrea Fishman (Photo by Tony Mastres/Fall 2016)

"The UCSB Middle East Ensemble:

Soaring Melodies Promote Respect and Shared Humanity"

By Gail S. Eisen, Ph.D.

The UCSB Middle East Ensemble (MEE) is known for exhilarating performances of Middle Eastern and North African music and dance that permeate the senses: Soaring melodies punctuated by rhythmic tabla drums and tambourines; lyrics from classical, popular, and folkloric songs that speak to nuanced feelings of love and yearning; lithe, swirling dancers adorned in shimmering pastel gowns and traditional embroidered robes; and enormous, exquisitely-patterned fabrics that drape the stage to provide a stunning backdrop to the 60-plus on-stage musicians engaged in spirited performance.           
As a MEE Board member for nearly 8 years, I have attended dozens of Ensemble concerts and been delighted by the extraordinary talent and artistry found within its ranks. Founded in 1989 by UCSB Professor of Ethnomusicology Dr. Scott Marcus, the group draws from both the university and the surrounding community to offer opportunities for creative expression and public performance for singers, dancers, and a wide range of musicians.
Yet the multi-dimensional gifts of the Ensemble extend well beyond technical skill and musical mastery: their performances present larger social messages that are consistently positive and play an important role in helping to build bridges of understanding across diverse cultures and demographic groups. In this article, I assume the vantage point of a sociologist and educator marveling at three dimensions of outreach and experience offered by the Ensemble that are rarely documented. 
The first dimension of constructive outreach relates to a subtle educational component of the concerts, beyond the new tonal scales and colorful choreographic flourishes that greet audiences from the start. Ensemble Director Marcus gently invites listeners into each musical selection by offering several vital observations-as-prelude: a short history and narrative backdrop to each piece; a review of key instruments; a summary of regional and cultural distinctions that may exist in the structure of songs and dances; a concise explanation of each song’s lyrics in terms of universal human themes that hold relevance from LA to Lisbon to Cairo; and a brief biography of oft-legendary composers whose work will be showcased. Marcus also offers unobtrusive cultural observations that further highlight distinctions between the various culture-groups within the Middle East and North Africa, so that within just a few sentences, listeners understand that these larger regions are far from monolithic.
Marcus’ careful attention to explaining the rich tapestry of cultures and ethnicities found within the wider region goes a long way toward dispelling some of the stereotypes and pre-conceptions that are common among individuals unfamiliar with these areas. All who listen to his introductions will appreciate the tremendous diversity and nuance within these countries and cultures. Thus, the concert hall is transformed into an oasis of respect, and the messages conveyed are quite clearly about shared humanity and universal values. In subtle ways, each performance offers a poignant counter-balance to the grim headlines so common in our newspapers and magazines, as well as a more truthful portrait of the warmth and creativity found within these cultures. In fact, many concert-goers who have lived or traveled extensively in the region speak of finding a home within the realistic portrayals found in these brief narratives.
A second dimension of the Ensemble experience that surprises and delights all first-time attendees is the tremendous age-integration characterizing the group: the youngest member of the Ensemble is currently five years of age, while our eldest performer – a beloved singer and percussionist born in Kirkuk, Iraq, who performed with the group until the age of 88 – died just a year ago at the age of 90. Audiences are captivated to see the vast span of ages and the palpable camaraderie and friendship that exists among the musicians. Indeed, age-segregation is both rampant and pernicious within most public spaces in the US; it is rare to find significant age-integration within North American performance venues, and the Ensemble’s dual messages of inclusivity and respect are profound. Guests observe the oft-joyful interactions between the generations and begin to reflect upon the opportunities for positive role modeling, gracious exchange, and respectful sharing of knowledge and artistry fostered within such settings. 
A third dimension of meaning within the Ensemble’s performances relates to the theme of music and memory, and the enormous power of music to spark memory and deep sentiment among listeners. The Ensemble’s repertoire includes music and dance from Arab, Turkish, Armenian, Greek, Sephardic and Oriental Jewish, Persian, Kurdish, and Assyrian cultures.  Hence, concerts invariably provide a warm and welcoming space for ex-pats from these various culture groups to gather and find community. Quite often, international guests describe the experience of being transported back to earlier and more vibrant times in their lives via melodies and rhythms embedded in their synapses but rarely experienced in the US.
On a deeper level still, the Ensemble’s performances tap into some closely-held ethnic and cultural identities among patrons whose childhoods were spent abroad. Musical memories from childhood and adolescence are of great human significance, and attendees often report traveling for hundreds of miles to attend Ensemble performances to reunite with vital elements of their own complex identities. During concert intermissions, many patrons speak openly of the comfort and solace experienced when they are surrounded by familiar tones and rhythms from their far-away homelands. 
It is also worth noting that the Ensemble’s concerts offer solace to scores of North American attendees, as well – local residents who have spent months or years engaged in overseas work or study, who may be yearning for a previous era in a dynamic life abroad. The Ensemble’s performances provide a rich and evocative home for all of these global citizens, and I have often noted the “sense of reverie” that seems to envelop many audience members who appear visibly lost in thought and emotion during the performances. 
In sum, the UCSB Middle East Ensemble provides attendees with a multi-dimensional concert experience that stirs the senses and shatters stereotypes. Performances offer audiences a nuanced musical education, as well as subtle socio-cultural knowledge that can help to lessen prejudice and bigotry. Concert venues are frequently transformed into oases of respect and tolerance, and patrons leave the program feeling invigorated, hopeful, and infused with a greater awareness of the rich cultural tapestry of the wider world.
Author Bio
Dr. Gail S. Eisen is a teacher and consultant in the psychology of aging, with research and teaching experience in the fields of life-span development, cross-cultural program design, graduate student retention, and communications analysis. A former Fulbright Senior Scholar, Gail has taught at UCLA, the University of Michigan, California State University, SBCC, as well as universities in Kenya, Bulgaria, Egypt, Israel, and India. She has presented inter-disciplinary seminars for an array of Fortune 500 companies, social science and medical conferences, school districts in the US and abroad, and clinical counseling agencies. Her students have ranged in age from 7 to 97 years. Currently Gail serves on the Board of Directors of the Fulbright Association and The Middle East Ensemble. For more information about her seminars and courses, please see:
UCSB Middle East Ensemble